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Aid for Students and Veterans Gets a Spotlight at Democrats’ Convention

09/05/2012

The Chronicle of Higher Education - September 5, 2012

On the first night of their national convention here, several Democrats highlighted the role that federal student aid and veterans’ education benefits had played in their own lives and reminded voters that President Obama would continue to champion those public programs.

Making the case for why her husband deserves a second term, the first lady, Michelle Obama, said the president could relate to the plight of students struggling to afford college. She repeated a story Mr. Obama often tells when he campaigns on college campuses: that the Obamas both struggled with student-loan debt.

“When we were first married, our combined monthly student-loan bills were actually higher than our mortgage,” she said. “We were so young, so in love, and so in debt.”

Mr. Obama has fought to expand student aid, she said, because he knows that, “like so many of you, he never could’ve attended college without financial aid.”

Her remarks and those of several other speakers on Tuesday gave federal student aid a much more prominent role at this convention than the issue held at the Republican gathering in Tampa, Fla., last week.

The mayor of Newark, N.J., Cory Booker, who was chairman of the convention’s platform committee, reiterated in his speech the importance of education.

“Our president has already doubled Pell Grants, raised education standards, invested in research and development at our universities and early-childhood education in our neighborhoods,” he said. “Our nation cannot continue to be the world’s No. 1 economy if we aren’t committed to being the world’s No. 1 educator.”

Tammy Duckworth, a former Department of Veterans Affairs official who is running for Congress from Illinois, described the significance of federal aid in her upbringing. “Thank God for the food stamps, public education, and Pell Grants that helped me finish high school and college,” she said.

Ms. Duckworth touted Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy record, criticizing Mitt Romney for not mentioning the war in Afghanistan once in his acceptance speech last week. She also praised Mr. Obama’s support for veterans issues, arguing that he has “lived up to his responsibilities as commander in chief.”

Earlier in the evening, delegates heard a similar theme from Nate Davis, director of veterans affairs at Xavier University, in Cincinnati. Mr. Davis, who used the Post-9/11 GI Bill to graduate from Xavier, praised Mr. Obama in broad terms for supporting veterans.

Tom Tarantino, chief policy officer of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in an interview that while it was encouraging to hear several Democrats discussing the importance of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, neither party was sufficiently dealing with veterans’ issues.

“If these issues aren’t really being addressed here, even as we still have 85,000 troops in Afghanistan, what’s going to happen when we’re not at war?” he said.

For Mr. Tarantino, the top issue for veterans that both parties should be focused on is protecting GI Bill benefits from what he called predatory for-profit colleges, and ending an exception in federal law that does not count veterans’ benefits toward the cap on federal funds that the colleges can receive as a percentage of their revenue.

This year’s Democratic platform singles out the use of veterans’ benefits at for-profit colleges, praising Mr. Obama’s executive order aimed at curbing predatory practices at those institutions.

That is a good first step, but it’s not enough, said Mr. Tarantino, who attended both conventions this year.

“Discussing it in the halls here is one thing,” he said. “Discussing it on the main stage in front of millions and millions of voters is another.”